Seng Mountain National Scenic Area

This article reviews the newest federally protected area in Southwest Virginia, the Seng Mountain National Scenic Area. 

Rowland Creek Falls

In 2009 the United States enacted the Virginia Ridge and Valley Act of 2008.   Sponsored by Senator John Warner (R-VA) and Rick Boucher (D-VA), the Act preserved over 50,000 acres of wilderness areas in the western part of Virginia.  Part of the Act created the Seng Mountain National Scenic Area, a 6,500 acre tract, and the Bear Creek National Scenic Area, a 5,500 acre tract (I will review the Bear Creek National Scenic Area in a future article).  See 16 U.S.C. § 546b.  The designation of these tracts as “scenic areas,” as opposed to “wilderness,” was a compromise to allow continued non-motorized recreational use by cyclists (mostly single track mountain biking).

Some groups and individuals have known about this part of the northern ramparts and mountainsides of Iron Mountain for a long time.  The Seng Mountain area has been part of the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area for 25+ years.  The scenic area designation simply gives it more protection and makes permanent the designation of the area as one for the limited recreational uses enumerated in the statute.  Ok—enough with the legal mumbo jumbo—let’s talk about the area itself:

 The area is located in the southern section of Smyth County and is about 30 miles as the crow flies from Abingdon.  Its boundaries are roughly Route 600 (Skulls Gap) on the west, Hurricane Campground on the east (off of Route 16), Forest Road 84 near the top of Iron Mountain on the south, and private land near the Stony Battery community on the north. 

There are two major single track trails that cross the scenic area, Jerrys Creek Trail on the west side, and Rowland Creek Trail on the east side.  Each of the trails follows a small creek that runs down the mountainside.  The high point in the scenic area is Round Top Mountain, 4626′. 

Mountainsides Draw Close Together to Form Miniature Gorge

In mid-April my family and I drove to the upper trail head of Rowland Creek Trail.    Our starting point was at 3850′.  You reach this trailhead by traveling on FR 84, which is a gravel forest road.  Getting to the trailhead from Route 600 takes about 20-25 minutes. 

This is an unusual mountain hike, in that the hike starts the top, so you start hiking downhill, and return going back uphill.  Rowland Creek trail starts out wide as it descends around Seng Mountain, down towards the headwaters of the creek below.  The area forms a mini-gorge, as the mountainsides are steep and drop quickly down into Rowland Creek. 

Rowland Creek Trail - Steep Switchbacks

 Where we started, on FR 84, there were no leaves.  However, within a half mile of going down the trail, we descended into the foliage of springtime.  The protection of the gorge-like formation protects the trees below from the elements, creating a micro-climate that is much milder than at the top. 

Leafed Out Trees Below Contrast with 4000'+ Bare Ridge Lines

After several switchbacks, you arrive at the headwaters of Rowland Creek.  There are some nice potential campsites at the upper end of the trail, within easy walking distance of the creek.

Moss Covered Rocks and Boulders
Photo by Karl Thiessen

One thing we noticed is that the trail was quite moist and rutted out from horses near the creek.  It is probably extremely muddy after rains.  The trail roughly parallels the creek the rest of the way down the mini-gorge. 

The area along the creek is lush.  We spotted numerous flowers.  A bit of research shows that the trilliums we saw are native to the Southeastern United States, particularly in mountainous, gorge-like hollows such as that on this trail.  They bloom in April or May at the earliest, while sunlight reaches the forest floor before the trees are fully leafed out.

Southern Red Trillium
Photo by Karl Thiessen

One thing we were not anticipating, but had some fun with, were the creek crossings. 

Rowland Creek Crossing Number 1

While none of the creek crossings were too difficult, we were hiking after several dry days.  The trail could likely become completely washed out, and the creek crossings more difficult (at least to get across without getting soaked) under wetter conditions.

Rowland Creek Crossing 2

Even our dog, Magnus, was enjoying the creek crossings (here is creek crossing 3): 

The highlight of this trip is most definitely Rowland Creek Falls, a 50′ cascade-type waterfall that drops down a series of stairs for about 80-100′. 

Upper Rowland Creek Falls

The falls are not directly on the trail, so we needed to go down a hill in order to get some clean shots of the cascades.

Multiple Cascades

My son Karl made it all the way to the bottom and took some nice shots of the lower end of the falls, including this photo:

Lower Rowland Creek Falls
Photo by Karl Thiessen

 Below is a map of the entire scenic area.  Rowland Creek Trail and Jerrys Creek Trail can be connected by either FR 84, or an older, no longer used forest road that parallels FR 84 about 100′ downslope of it.  This loop is about 12 miles in length.  It is also used by mountain bikers, although there are sections that are very difficult due to the grade and the wetness near the creek beds.    

Seng Mountain Map

Tennessee Laurel Creek

Spring is high season for trout fishing in Southern Appalachia.   This evening I was able to get in a couple of hours of fishing on Tennessee Laurel Creek.

The Brown Trout Were Hungry Today

Tennessee Laurel Creek starts in Laurel Bloomery, Tennessee and flows north across the Virginia state line into Damascus.  There are bunches of turnouts next to Route 91, the road that parallels the creek, where you can fish. 

The creek is not limited to fly fishing, so some days—like today—there are way too many fisherman on the Virginia side, where VGIF stocks regularly.  I therefore drove across into Tennessee, where the stocking program is not as prominent, but where there are still numbers of wild trout.

Beautiful Fins and Colors

The creeksides are now lush and green.  The greenery is reason enough to get outside this time of year.

Tennessee Laurel Up The Creek

Tennessee Laurel is a typical Appalachian freestone creek, with lots of rifles and pocket water.  It has more chutes and slightly slacker water than its sister Whitetop Laurel Creek, allowing for longer and easier drifts in most sections.  When the water flow is right, it’s a pleasure to fish.

Tennessee Laurel - Down the Creek

Blue Ridge Parkway Near Grandfather Mountain

Wilson Creek Valley Overlook, Mile Marker 302

The section of the Blue Ridge Parkway that skirts around Grandfather Mountain is most impressive.  This is the site of the famous Linn Cove Viaduct, where the Parkway is raised up on pylon-like stilts and skirts around part of the mountain as if suspended in midair. This whole section of road has impressive views of the mountain, and off to the east and southeast, all the way to the Piedmont region.

The photo above was taken in March near mile marker 302—right before you begin rounding Grandfather Mountain when approaching from the Blowing Rock Area.  Low hanging cumulus clouds accentuate the blueish hue of the mountains.  The photo views the mountains and hills to the southeast (Grandfather Mountain is not in the picture but is to the right from this viewpoint, on the other side of the Parkway from this turnoff).

Linville Falls

This March we visited Linville Falls, one of the most famous waterfalls in North Carolina, during the 2012 Banff Film Festival in Boone (the inspirational film festival trailer can be seen here).   The falls are located just off the Blue Ridge Parkway at mile marker 316.  There is a visitor’s center and a short hiking trail (about .8 miles) to the falls.

Water Swirls Around Ancient Stone

The closest viewing area shows the upper falls (not pictured here) in one direction, and beginning part of the lower falls in the other direction.  The photos above and below show the beginning part of the lower falls.  The lower falls churn through a cavernous semi-circle of eroded limestone, and then plummet about 45 feet into a large pool.  

Water Diverted in a Semi-Circle Above Linville Falls

“Chimney Rock Overlook” can be seen from the upper viewing area, as highlighted in the photo to the right.  From Chimney Rock Overlook, you can see the lower falls in their entirety, as well as the large cliffs that surround the falls and mark the beginning of the Linville Gorge.  

Highlighting the Overlooks Shows the Scale of these Falls

 The cliff face next to the lower falls is as impressive as the falls themselves.  When we viewed the falls, there was a relatively large volume of water flowing.  This caused the falls to jettison outward from the upper pool.

Linville Falls is a very popular stop on the Blue Ridge Parkway (the parking lot at the visitor center is huge), so it is recommended that if you want to visit the falls without hordes of tourists, you should try to see them during less visited times of year such as in spring or winter, or during the middle of the week. 

The viewing areas were built in a manner to try to fit into the natural surroundings and are constructed of stone and logs.  When they are wet, it is possible they could be treacherous.  In particular, the Chimney Rock overlook could be dangerous if someone got too close to the edge of the viewing area, as a fall from that location could be fatal. 

The Linville Gorge is one of the deepest gorges in the Eastern United States.  I have seen claims that it is in fact the deepest, but there are several others that are comparable (including the Russell Fork Gorge in Southwest Virginia).  Suffice it to say that it is deep and impressive.  Experienced hikers have become disoriented and lost in this place.

Linville Falls from Chimney Overlook

 

The Linville Gorge reminded me of the gorge below Abrams Falls close to Abingdon, although without doubt the Linville Gorge is much deeper and longer. 

If you find yourself in Boone, Blowing Rock, or on the Blue Ridge Parkway in this neighborhood, a trip to Linville Falls makes for a nice day trip and provides a nice little outdoor experience without too much effort.

Peering into Linville Gorge